Moscow lifts lockdown restrictions amid virus concerns

Moscow emerged from a strict lockdown Tuesday with the city government citing a slowdown in the coronavirus outbreak and critics expressing concerns over the potential for a new wave of infections in the Russian capital.

As of Tuesday, Moscow residents are no longer required to stay at home or obtain electronic passes for traveling around the city, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Monday. All restrictions on taking walks, using public transportation or driving have been lifted as well.

The sudden ending of restrictions imposed in late March comes weeks before a nationwide vote on a constitutional change that would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 and was condemned by Kremlin critics as premature and politically motivated.

The lifted lockdown measures not only permitted Moscow residents to move about, but allowed beauty parlors to reopen Tuesday. Outdoor terraces of cafes and restaurants, as well as museums and dental clinics, are set to open on June 16. Kindergartens, gyms and indoor spaces of cafes and restaurants will be allowed to operate starting June 23.

“The fight isn’t over yet,” Sobyanin said in a video address Monday. “Nevertheless, I would like to congratulate you on our common victory and a big step towards returning to a full-fledged life.”

Under the lockdown the city government imposed in late March, all nonessential businesses were closed and residents were only allowed to go out to shop at nearby stores and pharmacies, visit doctors and walk their dogs. Sobyanin had since eased some of the restrictions, reopening industrial plants and construction sites in mid-May and non-food retailers June 1.

Two weeks ago, the mayor extended Moscow’s stay-at-home order until June 14 and said in an interview that it was too early to talk about reopening hair salons, gyms and other facilities at a time when city health officials were registering 2,000-3,000 new virus cases a day.

Opposition activists linked Sobyanin’s decision to ease the terms of the lockdown to the upcoming plebiscite on constitutional amendments proposed by Putin. The vote is scheduled for July 1, and early voting starts on June 25.

“Sobyanin has been consistently tightening the lockdown in Moscow, to the point of absurdity - (requiring) jogging in masks, taking walks on schedule,” Kira Yarmysh, the spokeswoman for opposition politician Alexei Navalny, tweeted on Monday. “And now, in a moment, (he) dropped it all. How much must Putin want the vote if the 20-million city in one day lifts all (restrictions) that were being developed for 2.5 months.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday rejected the idea that lifting the lockdown in Moscow was premature.

“The head of each region makes the decision (on virus restrictions) based on expert assessment,” Peskov told reporters.

In recent weeks, the officially reported daily number of new coronavirus infections in Moscow has dropped from over 6,000 to under 2,000. Several doctors in Moscow hospitals interviewed by The Associated Press said they have been seeing signs the outbreak is receding, such as fewer hospital admissions and more free beds. Some were preparing to shut down coronavirus wards and go back to their normal routines.

“We have started feeling a relief in the second half of May,” Dr. Anton Rodionov, who has been treating coronavirus patients at the Moscow-based Sechenov Medical University hospital, told the AP. “But it doesn’t mean that the problem in Moscow has been entirely resolved. We shouldn’t rush to the other extreme.”

Dr. Anastasiya Vasilyeva of the Alliance of Doctors union called the lifting of restrictions “appalling” in a tweet Monday and said it would lead to “an explosion of infections among everyone who was self-isolating.”

“Crowds of people will venture to the cinemas, out in the streets, will travel to the regions,” Vasilyeva wrote. “I’m really scared for the regions.”

Outside of Moscow, which currently accounts for a little over 40% of Russia’s 485,000 confirmed virus cases, infections have been growing. The daily number of new virus cases reported outside the Russian capital exceeded 7,000 on Tuesday, compared to a little over 6,000 two weeks ago.

“It’s all shifting out into the regions,” many of which don’t have hospitals as well-equipped and personnel as well-trained as in Moscow, Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Judy Twigg, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “From the very beginning, everybody has been saying that the disaster is when this moves out into the regions.”